Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Big Cheese

The root of the problem was that Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with mammoths. 

It was easy to see evidence of this obsession, as he kept the lower and upper jawbones of a mammoth in the entry hall of Monticello.  (And they are still there.)  While residing in the White House, he turned the largest room—the East Room—into something of a private museum, with bones scattered all over the floor.  In idle times, the president would try to rearrange them into some kind of order.

Jefferson’s obsession with fossilized bones, extending well beyond just those of mammoths, was so intense that today he is often referred to as the father of modern day paleontology.

Besides being b fascinated with paleontology, Jefferson was interested in mammoths because of the writings of the French scientist George Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon.  Buffon was one of the foremost naturalists in the world, and was working on a multi-volume work, the Histoire Naturelle, that would attempt to explain the entire natural world, including descriptions of the world’s plants and animals, of how animals were domesticated, and even of the origin of the solar system. 

In Volume V, Buffon attempted to answer why the animals of the New World were so obviously inferior, at least in size, to those of the Old World.  Buffon had never been to the Americas, and simply accepted the common European view of life in the New World, in which it was widely accepted that there was something unnaturally unhealthy about life in the New World:  Not only was there a dearth of large animals, but what animals did exist were notably smaller, weaker, and less healthy than their counterparts in Europe, Africa, and Asia.  American dogs could not bark as loud as European dogs, European birds could fly better than their American counterpart.

Somehow, it was even the common belief in Europe that the deer of the New World were puny.  Years ago, while traveling in England, my son What’s-His-Name (not The-Other-One) was describing New Mexico mule deer to a young man who had just gone deer hunting near Oxford.  Fascinated, he gave my son a key ring made from the foot of a deer he had recently harvested.  As you can see at left, it is about the size of a rabbit’s foot.

At the end of the eighteenth century, a large portion of the New World had yet to be discovered, and even those areas that had been explored were poorly documented.  The Spanish, in particular had already had extensive experience with wolves, jaguars, mountain lions, grizzly bear, Rocky Mountain elk, and buffalo.  Despite this, the Spanish, too, believed that life in the new world was unhealthy, producing inferior specimens. 

This belief even extended to people born in the New World.  If you had two sons, the one born in Europe would be stronger, smarter, and more capable than the son who happened to be born in the unhealthy New World.  The basis of this belief was due, in part, to the mosquito-borne illnesses prevalent in most of the Spanish ports.  Ironically, these diseases were imported by the Spanish (most likely in the water barrels of slave ships arriving from Africa).  The death rate of Europeans immigrating to the New World once they arrived in these pestilent ports was very high, reaching over a quarter of all new arrivals at times.

Buffon’s work was widely distributed, particularly among the European aristocrats who had both the leisure time and wealth necessary to be  naturalists.  Jefferson was furious that Buffon’s theory was generally accepted as proof that the American “experiment” with democracy was doomed to failure—that Americans were simply too mentally feeble for self-government.  Benjamin Franklin, by contrast, was amused by the notion.  When the topic came up during a diplomatic meeting in Paris, Franklin ordered everyone in the room to stand up, then pointed out that the Americans assembled towered over the diminutive French diplomats.

Despite Jefferson’s repeated written requests, Buffon refused to retract his opinion, so the Virginian sought to provide irrefutable proof.  He arranged to have a moose stuffed and shipped to Europe, but unfortunately the taxidermist did a poor job and it was a putrid rotting unidentifiable carcass that was actually deposited on Buffon’s doorstep.

What Jefferson really wanted as proof was a mammoth.  Not the prehistoric remains of one, Jefferson wanted a live mammoth.  In spite of the fact that they had been extinct for at least 4,000 years in North America, Jefferson fervently hoped that some might still be roaming around somewhere in the unexplored West.  Why not?  No one had been there yet, and there was a popular belief among some naturalists that God would not allow any of his creations to become extinct. 

Jefferson went to great lengths to gather evidence, writing friends and associates to search salt licks and creek bottoms for the skeletal remains of the elephant-like critters.  He collected the molars of mastodons (many of which were shipped at fairly large expense by some of the founding fathers of the country).  He measured bones and collected enough material that he eventually wrote a book, Notes of the State of Virginia, that favorably compared the measurements of animals in Virginia against their counterparts in Europe.  

All of these actions by Jefferson were nothing compared to his secret master plan—to perhaps capture a living mammoth.  When Lewis and Clarke set off to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, they carried secret instructions to be on the lookout for wooly mammoths.  (Jefferson also suspected the existence of a tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians—but that’s a different story.)  While no pachyderms were sighted, the explorers did identify 178 new plants and 122 new animals.

Jefferson did, ultimately receive his mammoth, but it wasn’t wooly.  To honor Jefferson’s election, the Baptist parishioners of Cheshire, Massachusetts collected the milk from 900 cows and using a cider press as an improvised cheese press, created a 4’ wide, 1235 pound cheese bearing the inscription “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”  To be certain that the cheese was pure, no milk was gathered from cows belonging to supporters of the Federal Party, Jefferson’s political opponents.

The huge cheese took three weeks to transport 500 miles by sleigh, ship, and hired wagon to Washington, where Jefferson promptly put it in the East Room along with his mammoth bones.  Since Jefferson was opposed to the notion of an Imperial Presidency, he insisted on paying for the cheese. 

Federalist politicians, delighted in making fun of the cheese, referring to it as the Mammoth Cheese because of all the bones also to be found in the room.  This was the first time that the word “mammoth” was used as a synonym for “huge”, a practice that continues to this day.  Within weeks, butchers and bakers began shipping to the White House similar items.  Jefferson received a mammoth cake, a mammoth veal, and so forth.

No one is exactly sure what happened to the mammoth cheese, though it was a featured part of a July 4, celebration a year later.  Supposedly it stayed in the East Room for over two years, before the remains were dumped into the Potomac River to make room for the Mammoth Loaf of Bread being presented to Jefferson by the US Navy.

Luckily, the tradition of mammoth gifts died out for a while.  In 1835, President Andrew Jackson was presented with a new, and even larger Mammoth Cheese.  Despite his best efforts to get rid of the cheese, it took Jackson years to dispose of it.  In 1838, the newly elected President Van Buren complained bitterly that the entire White House reeked of cheese.

Since 1835, the White House has rejected all gifts of cheese, regardless of size.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Custom Boots

There was a time when I used to cross the bridge into Mexico frequently.  I could park my car near the bridge, get out and walk across into Mexico, paying the small fee to enter the country and then enjoy a few hours of the carnival atmosphere the border town version of Mexico had to offer to anyone who had a quarter and a couple of hours to spare.

Juarez is certainly a part of Mexico, but it is not typical of the whole country—at least the half-mile wide strip of restaurants, bars, and shops located close to the two bridges connecting El Paso to Juarez isn't.  Those places were designed for tourists, and are about as indicative of what the rest of Mexico is like as the Strip in Las Vegas is of the rest of America. 

While Juarez might not be like my favorite places in Mexico—which are Zacatecas and Puebla—it is still a good place for an inexpensive meal, cheap drinks, and some interesting shopping.  I still keep a few Mexican blankets in my truck, and I have no idea how many bottles of Kahlua and tequila I have brought back over the years.  I enjoy walking through the mercado, and sampling the food.

My favorite store in Juarez is a boot shop about half a mile from the bridge, where I have purchased custom boots for over forty years.  You go in the small dimly-lit shop—it's about ten feet wide and thirty feet deep—and carefully check out a few examples of boots sitting on a rack along one wall.  The whole shop smells of oiled, worked leather, and you can see the men in the back of the shop working by hand, shaping the leather into boots, using ancient tools. 

To buy a pair of custom boots, you select the kind of leather, the color, the type of sole and heel, the stitching, and so forth.  In my case, I always requested a pocket inside the left shaft—an option that cost an additional $4.  And being a little clumsy, I wanted a full rubber sole rather than the usual leather sole. 

Once the style of the boot has been selected, you stand barefooted on a large single sheet of newspaper while the outline of your foot is traced with a black marker.  On the opposite wall from the boot samples are dozens of huge books, bound in black  leather.  Each book is fat with the bound newspaper pages, each containing the information about the desired boot, as well as the number of the claim check.  If you can remember the number from your previous purchase, it is all you need to order an identical pair.

The cost of the boots is $40, with half down and the rest due when you return two weeks later with your claim check.  Over the years, I have bought half a dozen pairs of such boots, and I still wear my last, aging pair occasionally.

Over the last few years, however, my trips across the border have become a little less frequent.  This has been partly due to the recent violence caused by the various cartels fighting each other to see who will control the lucrative drug traffic into the United States, and partly because the Customs Agents on the border have tightened their control, adding lengthy delays and small bureaucratic headaches to the return crossing.

Somewhere along the line, quick trips into Juarez just stopped being something to do for fun on an afternoon.  It was still possible, but The Doc and I just found other things to do.  While we still occasionally traveled south of the border, we flew into the interior and bypassed the border crossings completely.  Unfortunately, we gave up going for lunch in Juarez.

At least, until a colleague of mine passed away.  While he had worked at Enema U, he was going to be buried in the family plot back in Juarez, so several of us decided to attend the funeral.  Once again, we parked our cars in El Paso,  crossed the bridge into Mexico by foot, and continued by taxi to the funeral. 

After the funeral, my friend and I went to our favorite seafood restaurant in Juarez.   The place serves excellent ceviche—a dish made with raw fish cured in lime juice, served with chopped onions and chiles.  If you’re not familiar with Mexican food, you’ll just have to trust me:  it tastes better than it sounds.  And, of course, it is served with ice-cold Tecate, my favorite Mexican beer.

While we sat enjoying our meal, I suddenly remembered the boot shop a few blocks away.  I dug out my wallet and began excavating through the contents.  Like most men's wallets, mine is a cross between a museum and that one drawer in the kitchen where small tools and what-nots go to die (In our house, we call it, "the No-No drawer").  Digging through my wallet, I found a credit card for a gas company that hasn’t existed in a dozen years, an astonishing number of library cards, and finally, a long-forgotten claim check for a pair of boots.

The claim check was eight years-old and while I had paid the initial $24, I had never gotten around to picking up the promised boots.  Would they still be there?

My friend and I finished our dinner and walked to the boot place, passing up countless opportunities to purchase onyx chess sets, artwork featuring Beavis and Butthead on velvet, and t-shirts that were most likely manufactured in China. 

Arriving at the boot shop, I found that nothing had changed.  The boot samples were exactly the same and while there might have been a few more bound books on the wall, in the back of the shop, the men were still making boots using tools and methods that were at least a century old.

When I presented my aging claim check, there was a brief and fruitless search among the accumulated boots behind the counter.  After a brief conference, the clerk located the bound book containing my footprints, studied the details, and then returned with a smile on his face.

“They are almost ready,” he announced confidently.  “Come back next week.”

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Military Parade

It all started with loans.  During the 1850’s, Mexico borrowed heavily from Europe, using its rich silver mines as collateral.  Unfortunately, this was a decade of political turmoil and civil war that made repaying the loans impossible.

By the time newly-elected President Juarez could bring a little stability to the nation, the silver mines had flooded—in large part because of a shortage of labor as men left the mines for the military—ruining the nation’s economy, and leaving the government broke.  In July, 1861, Juarez announced a moratorium on loan repayments, since the nation needed a little time to stabilize and rebuild its economy.  Note that the Mexican president was not repudiating the loans--he just needed time before he could start repaying them again.

Unfortunately, the timing of this announcement was extremely bad.  In France, Emperor Napoleon III was looking for an opportunity to expand the French Empire, and the curtailment of loan payments gave him an excuse for intervention and expansion into Mexico.  While the United States normally would have vigorously challenged such a move by France as a blatant violation of the Monroe Doctrine, America was already deeply involved in its own Civil War.  Simply put, Americans were too busy shooting Americans to shoot Frenchmen. 

The initial European invasion was jointly conducted by England, Spain, and France--supposedly to seize the customs house at Vera Cruz, Mexico’s major port.  Since the import taxes were the main source of the Mexican government's revenue, diverting those funds would easily repay the European debtsHowever, within months of their landing in Mexico, England and Spain withdrew, since by that time, of Emperor Napoleon III's true intentions had become obvious—he wanted to add Mexico to the French Empire.  England and Spain were well aware that, eventually, Americans would stop shooting at each other and do something about the French Army in Mexico.  (And eventually, we did just that, but that’s getting ahead of our story.)

In early 1863, additional French troops landed and the French army began marching towards Mexico City, generally following the same route that had been used by Cortes in 1519 and General Winfield Scott in 1848.  As part of securing supply lines, the French Army laid siege to the town of Puebla and, after a few weeks, the forces around Puebla needed food andammunition, and the French soldiers needed to be paid.

To protect the supply convoy, a company of the French Foreign Legion was to march two hours ahead of the supplies.  The unit selected, the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion was far from combat-ready due to illness.  Napoleon III really should have paid more attention to the way in which the Americans had timed their invasion of Mexico so as to avoid the Yellow Fever season .  Half of the men and all of the officers of this company were on sick call, leaving only 62 men and three volunteer officers, including Captain Danjou, to lead the legionnaires.

Captain Jean Danjou was a veteran of several wars, having fought with distinction in Algiers, Italy, and Morocco.  A decade earlier, while fighting in Algiers, he had lost his left hand when his rifle had exploded, and had replaced it with a painted wooden replica.  Captain Danjou was leading a force that was decidedly understrength.

On the morning of April 30, 1863, the 3rd Company began its march hours before dawn in order  to avoid the heat of the day.  About 7 am, Captain Danjou called for a brief rest stop, and the men began to brew coffee, but before the water began to boil, lookouts reported spotting several hundred Mexican cavalry approaching their position.

Infantrymen in the field, unsupported by artillery, can easily be run down by cavalry.  The classic defense is for the men to form a square, with bayonets facing outward and the center of the square providing protection for the wounded and the supply animals.  Captain Danjou  had his men form such squares repeatedly that morning, and between cavalry charges, the men tried to seek defensive ground.

After repelling repeated charges, Danjou ordered his men to make their way to the remains of a hacienda near the village of Camarón.  The old hacienda had a large house surrounded by a ten-foot wall.  During the dash for safety, the group became divided, resulting in 16 men being captured by the Mexican troops.  Worse, in the confusion, the pack mules carrying the unit’s food, water, and spare ammunition were lost.

The fifty remaining Legionnaires, armed with muskets, took refuge within the hacienda walls, though they were now surrounded by the Mexican Army.  Under a flag of truce, Colonel Francisco Milan offered the French forces a chance to surrender, which Captain Danjou rejected, saying that his men had munitions and would defend their new position to the death.

Over the next hour, several assaults on the hacienda were repulsed.  The adobe walls provided cover from the Mexican infantry while the single gate was too narrow to allow an effective cavalry charge.  Time, however was not on the side of the French forces, as they slowly exhausted their ammunition, and they had neither food nor water.  Meanwhile, the Mexican Army received reinforcements, growing to 2000 men.

Inside the walls, Captain Danjou went to each man, offering encouragement and a small sip from a wine bottle, getting each man to vow to fight to the death.  According to one source, Danjou asked each man to give his vow while placing his right hand on Danjou's wooden prosthetic. 

About noon, during one of the seemingly endless assaults on the hacienda, Danjou was killed by a bullet to the head.  His replacement, Lieutenant Villian, also urged the men to never surrender, even as they fought off repeated attacks on the hacienda walls.  By the late afternoon, when Villian was also killed, only Lieutenant Maudet and a dozen legionnaires were left.  Under a flag of truce, Colonel Milan once again offered to accept the French surrender, only to have his offer refused.

By six p.m., only Lieutenant Maudet and five men were left, and each of the men possessed only a single round of ammunition.  The men loaded their weapons, affixed their bayonets, and lined up with their officer in the center and waited for the next enemy assault.  When the Mexicans next attacked the hacienda, six men appeared at the gate, firing a last volley before commencing a bayonet charge into the much larger Mexican force.

Almost immediately, the men were brought down (it was later claimed that one body had been shot 19 times).  The men were simply overwhelmed, beaten with rifle butts and forced into submission.  They would have almost certainly all have been killed had not a Mexican officer, impressed with their bravery, once again offered surrender terms.  Corporal Maine, the highest ranking NCO accepted, but demanded that the survivors be treated for their wounds, be allowed to keep their arms, and be allowed to return the body of Captain Danjou to France.

Colonel Milan, impressed with the men’s bravery, accepted the offer, saying, “What can I refuse to such men? No, these are not men, they are devils.”

Of the last bayonet charge, three of the six legionnaires survived.  Of the original force, 37 had been killed or were missing, 23 wounded were captured, and later, an unconscious drummer boy was found among the dead.  The Mexican forces had lost 190 killed and over 300 wounded.  In the running battle that lasted eleven hours, the French forces had battled an enemy that outnumbered them thirty to one, had fired 4000 rounds, and had killed ten of the enemy for each of their own losses.  The battle pulled all available Mexican soldiers to Camarón, allowing the supply convoy to successfully reach Puebla.

Today, every April 30, on Camerone Day, the French Foreign Legion holds a special mess in Paris, at which the officers prepare and serve coffee to the men in their command, in remembrance of the coffee the men of the 3rd Company never got to drink.  The Legion then ceremonially removes the glass-encased (wooden) hand of Captain Danjou from its museum and that hand leads a parade commemorating the battle.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Flyaway Islands

The legend starts with an invasion.  The Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711, pouring northward into Spain.  Easily defeating the Visigoths, they established their own government and spread the Islamic faith, touching off a seven century long Christian crusade to retake the Iberian Peninsula. 

Faced with the growing threat of living under Islamic rule, seven bishops elected to leave Spain, taking their followers with them…

Note.  There are two interesting points in that sentence.  First, a ł most any legend containing either the number seven or forty is probably deliberately signaling the medieval reader that the story is of great religious significance (the Moors would have used the number eight).  Second, we should note that the story is probably long on emotion and short on facts, since the Moors actually practiced religious tolerance in Spain, not caring who infidels prayed to as long as they paid their taxes. 

The seven bishops set sail in caravels to the West, forever leaving Al-Andalus (as the Muslims called Spain).  (We will ignore the fact that the caravel was actually developed by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, not the Spanish in the eighth century.  The Spanish, like a Texan I know, never let facts get in way of a good story, uh, er…legend.)

This was a perilous voyage into an unknown world.  Day after day the tiny ships sailed into the setting sun, trusting in God that land would be found before the fleeing people starved to death.  Even as they fought strange sea monsters and survived horrendous storms, the bishops and their flocks continued on their journey, praying to God for salvation.

Hearing their prayer, God brought them to Antillia, an island with lush forests teeming with game, with snowcapped mountains, and with rivers of clear water and abundant fish.  Everything the refugees could possibly need for survival was available on the island.

More important for our legends, Antillia was fabulously rich.  Precious jewels could be found in the river beds and gold nuggets were turned up every time a farmer plowed his field.  The beaches were golden, and the mountains were rich in silver.  Wealth beyond imagination could be gathered in an afternoon.

Each of the seven bishops built a city on Antillia for his followers, with each bishop competing to build the largest and most beautiful cathedral.  Over time, the wealth of the cities grew until even the most humble peasant dressed in the finest clothes and lived in luxury denied even to the nobles of Europe.  Because of this wealth, the island also became known as the Seven Cities of Gold.

It is not clear just how the people of Europe knew all of these details about Antilia, since no one had ever returned from the island, but Europeans certainly believed in it—every map of the Atlantic (or of the Ocean Sea as it was then called) showed that Antillia, Brendan’s Island, and a long list of other Phantom Islands lay somewhere far to the West of Europe.  Some maps showed another island close to Antillia, Satanzes—the island of demons where instead of an idyllic Christian life, the inhabitants were subjected to a literal Hell on Earth.

The maps carried by Columbus showed Antillia, which he died believing he had discovered;  he mentioned Antillia often in his correspondence with the Spanish Court.  Even today, World maps frequently refer to the Greater Antilles (the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the surrounding area) and the Lesser Antilles (the Windward and Leeward Islands near Venezuela). 

Long after Columbus, Phantom Islands were depicted on most maps.  Actually, increased exploration fostered more mapmaking, and actually increased the number of fictitious islands shown on maps.  The discovery of lands—particularly those with gold and silver—seemed to give credence to the old legends even while it encouraged the creation of new imaginary islands.

As you can imagine, as soon as possible, the Conquistadors eagerly taught Spanish to the natives in order to be able to interrogate them about the location of more gold and more wealth.  When Moctezuma questioned Hernan Cortes about his unreasonable fixation on a metal the Aztecs referred to as the “excrement of the Gods”, Cortes answered that he and his companions “suffered from a disease of the heart that could only be treated with gold.”

The embattled natives did not always tell the truth.  As you can imagine, when strange well-armed men showed up, raped the women, and robbed the locals of anything worth having, all the while asking about the location of more gold, they were quickly told of gold way over there (said direction always being the opposite of where the strange men had come from).

One of my favorite stories of way over there concerns a pair of mythical islands somewhere in the Caribbean.  One island was inhabited only by men while the other island was inhabited only by women.  Once a year, the men rowed canoes over to the other island for a night of wild partying.  Nine months later, the women rowed over to the other island and left the male children to be raised.  Of course, both islands had gold.  Had the creative native added a tale about artesian springs spouting beer, the story would have been exactly what sailors needed to hear.

A staggering amount of time was spent looking for these islands...Or, at least one of them.

These “flyaway island” stories have continued far longer than you might think.  The Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War, gave the imaginary Phélypeaux and Pontchartrain Islands—supposedly located in the middle of Lake Superior—to the United States.  As late as 2005, the National Geographic Atlas of the World showed the islands of Wachusett Reef, Jupiter Reef and Rangitiki Reef—none of which actually exist.  (Oops!!!)

Google Earth as late as 2012, showed Sandy Island located just off of New Zealand on both their maps and satellite photos despite the fact that the island simply never existed.  In reality, the depth of the ocean at the supposed location is a little over 4000 feet deep.  Despite this, Sandy Island still shows up regularly—and falsely—on internet maps.  (Double Oops!!!)

Which brings us to the island of Bermeja, located in the Gulf of Mexico, just north of the Yucatan Peninsula.  The tiny island, which still shows up on most maps of the region, was mentioned regularly by Spanish explorers, and if searched for on Google Earth, will take you exactly to the supposed location, 22 degrees, 33 minutes north, 91 degrees, 22 minutes west.  However, not even the earliest satellite photos show such an island. 

Mexico has really looked for the island.  Several expeditions have searched for it both above and below the water.  They need it, since the location of the island would factor into the boundary line separating US and Mexican offshore oil fields.  If the island does not exist, which the government of Mexico now begrudgingly admits, the boundary line moves 100 miles to the advantage of the United States, vastly reducing the size and the value of the Mexican oilfield.

While Mexico has officially admitted the non-existence of the island, you will probably not be surprised to learn that the popular theory south of the border is that, in order to control more of the world’s oil, the American C.I.A. blew it up. 

Yeah, and I bet those bastards at the C.I.A. knows where that island of women is located, too.